Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Food Allergies and a Leap of Faith

I've been reading more recent posts over General Mills decision to introduce a peanut butter flavor Cheerios®. Food Allergy Buzz shared the results of a survey in "The Peanut Butter Cheerios Mini Survey" and OneSpot Allergy believes GM's "Allergen Safety Statements Create More Questions Than They Answer". The Nut-Free Mom has even found a new cereal for her family. I know the announcement by General Mills has many asking questions about "shared lines" and "safe manufacturing practices".

And that's a good thing. These are questions anyone with food allergies needs to ask.

I am reminded of the leap of faith our family had to take nearly 10 years ago. With a diagnosis of allergies to dairy, egg, peanut, tree nut, corn, wheat, soy and oats we didn't know what might be safe. I still have the notebook we used when we contacted food manufacturers back then. Remember, those were the days before the Food Allergy Labeling Act, so no one was required to list allergens or even common names for ingredients. This was also a time when it was difficult to find allergy friendly recipes and ready-made foods. I spent hours on the phone for many weeks talking to food companies about their spaghetti sauce, hot dogs, potato chips, ketchup, pickles, bacon, cereal, and the list goes on...

Nearly every manufacturer produced products that contained one or more of the allergens we needed to avoid. So, while Ragu® plain marinara sauce was safe, they also made many sauces containing cheese. While one type of Oreo® was fine, many other varieties contained milk. I often was put in touch with manufacturer managers and even quality control specialists to get answers to my questions.

"How are the lines cleaned between runs?"
"What type of allergen testing do you conduct on your products?"

From one company I heard, "Lady, no one has ever asked me this before".

If I wasn't comfortable with the answers I got, I didn't buy the product. But still, a leap of faith was required. There were nights I lay awake with thoughts bouncing around my head- "Are those night shift people really following the proper procedures and cleaning all the dairy proteins off the equipment that just made cheese dogs before they run the all-beef hot dogs?" and "Who is checking to make sure that cereal manufacturer really is doing allergen testing on a regular basis?"

It came down to faith that companies were doing what they said they were doing. We had to rely on the system. It wasn't practical for us to grow all of our own food.

It's all about comfort level. We put on our investigative caps and then make the best decisions for ourselves and our families. You will still find Cheerios in my pantry- Honey Nut for some family members and plain for others, including my food allergic child. I respect that this is not something everyone feels comfortable with, but this is where we've arrived on our food allergy journey.

So, I'm happy we're asking the questions and that we have a network to share information. We are teaching food manufacturers and restaurants what we need from them in order to feel comfortable and that's a big leap in the right direction.
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